Neil Frank, the man of theatrical gestures, distinctive hair style and vivid metaphor, is leaving the National Hurricane Center to become a TV weatherman, passing his burdens to a soft-spoken, studious meteorologist.
Frank acknowledges that the shift in careers after 13 years as the nation's chief hurricane tracker will eliminate one onerous responsibility.
"There is a relief that I'm not living with a meteorological nightmare," he said. "The nightmare of the major loss of life will be lifted. There's that feeling of helplessness that it's going to happen someday and that there isn't much we can do about it."
Frank, 55, recalls meeting the director of the cyclone warning service in Bangladesh after 300,000 people died in 1970 cyclones.
'Live With Those Scars'
"He was stunned," Frank said. "He will live with those scars for the rest of his life."
Replacing Frank as acting director is Bob Sheets, a meteorologist whose low-key demeanor is in marked contrast to the ebullience of his more voluble predecessor.
"I've been in the game for 25 years," said Sheets, explaining his calm before the tropical storms that he will be responsible for tracking. "I've been under fire before."
Sheets, 49, said he plans to continue the work initiated by Frank to raise public consciousness about hurricanes--a part of the job the soon-to-be television weatherman considered "more people-oriented."
"If you don't get people to do what you tell them to do, then you've failed," Sheets said.
As deputy director of the center since 1985, Sheets performed about 10% to 15% of the public work. Frank has done the rest, becoming, Sheets said, "somewhat of a media personality."
Part of Job
Becoming such a personality this season does not faze Sheets, a mild-mannered scientist whose composure bespeaks his Indiana background. Exposure is part of the job.
"It's certainly not a goal," Sheets said. "That may happen as a result. To us it's not a news story, it's part of the warning process."
Frank said his switch from the National Weather Service to KHOU in Houston is not as radical a change as it might seem.
"I'm really only moving from the group of people that is evaluating the meteorology to the group of people that is communicating it," he said in an interview at his office on the sixth floor of an unpretentious building on U.S. 1.
Neither Frank nor Sheets initially saw his vocation in hurricanes. Both were trained in meteorology by the Air Force and continued their studies after military service.
Air Force Duty
Frank's interest in tropical storms came from two years in Okinawa with the Air Force, where, he laughingly explains, "I got introduced to typhoons."
He joined the National Hurricane Center as a graduate student in 1960 and became a forecaster in 1961. He was made the center's deputy director in 1973 and became director the next year.
Sheets said he "sort of fell into" meteorology after college when the Air Force sent him to the University of Oklahoma. There, he became interested in typhoons and tropical cyclones.
After his tour of duty, Sheets returned to the University of Oklahoma, where he received a master's degree in 1965. He earned a Ph.D. from Oklahoma in 1972. He came to the National Hurricane Center in 1980 after 15 years at the National Hurricane Research Laboratory.